Thanks to everyone for their responses to yesterday’s HR poser. I think most people got halfway to finding a reasonable outcome, but I don’t think anyone got it completely. So first, here’s how I answered the question for my assignment.
Let’s call the English blogger Tim, the Nigerian Adewale, and the Frenchman Gilles.
1. Gilles needs to read the article so he can discuss it factually. This will help him understand Adewale’s objections and, if he’s experienced and properly trained, understand the cultural context of the conflict.
2. Gilles should pass the article to legal, HR, the ethics committee or whichever department in the organisation is responsible for determining whether employees have broken the law or a company code of conduct. For information, the Company Code of Conduct states under “Political Activity”:
Employees who could be considered to represent the Group shall refrain from political activity in countries where they are not entitled to exercise political rights and where the Group operates. In addition, employees must refrain from doing anything that would be contrary to such countries’ traditions or cultures.
and they strive to uphold the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of which states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The Code of Conduct also says employees shall “refrain from intervening in the political arena of the countries in which they have no civil rights.” The company guideline on human rights states that:
By virtue of international Human Rights standards (notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), every individual has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The right to freedom of opinion guarantees that no one should be harassed due to their opinions. All individuals also have the right to freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to seek, receive and disseminate any kind of information, provided that the privacy and reputation of third parties and the company are respected.
The reason Gilles seeks guidance on this is not to act on the information which comes back (necessarily), but to understand what his options are should reasonable attempts to solve the conflict fail. In negotiation terms this is called the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). I’m not a lawyer, but I think a good one could successfully argue my writing the blog post fell within the acceptable behaviour set out by the company’s governing documents, especially if it were in front of an Australian tribunal.
3. Gilles needs to talk to Tim and find out why he wrote the article, what he hoped to achieve, and to clarify certain points. In other words, intentions matter in these cases. So let’s say Tim gives his perspective (which I think you all know!).
4. At this point, if he is experienced and trained, Gilles should understand:
i) Tim sees a clear dividing line between his work and private life.
ii) Tim is aware of his rights under Australian law.
iii) Tim knows that he writes in a provocative, robust manner but did not intend to offend any individual, nor did he write it in the expectation any Nigerian would read it. In short, he did not deliberately set out to write an article which would upset his colleagues.
iv) Tim is displaying a degree of self-awareness and even social awareness, but self-management is lacking with the result that his relationship management is poor.
He should immediately recognise that Nos. i) and ii) are a product of Tim’s cultural background, i.e. the UK. Britain is (or was) a country of rules whereby people are generally free to engage in behaviour which is not explicitly prohibited (and yes, this applies in companies, clubs, and other organisations too). He thinks if the company says freedom of expression is allowed, then he is allowed to freely express himself.
By contrast, Adewale is from a culture where power is invested in the person, rather than distributed through institutions like in the UK. He therefore believes rules and procedures are subordinate to the will of the project director, and hence sees no reason why Gilles just can’t fire Tim. But Tim thinks Gilles has no such right as his power is severely limited by the company rules and national laws. And it is this cultural difference which is the root cause of the conflict.
5. Gilles needs to invite Adewale for a formal, structured conversation. He needs to try to get Adewale to specify exactly which words or phrases he found so offensive. This will help diffuse the anger and emotion from the conflict, effectively shifting it from an affective to cognitive conflict.
6. Gilles then needs to ask Adewale if he might soften his views in light of the fact Tim didn’t deliberately set out to upset his colleagues, nor was he targeting any individual. He was just sounding off as Brits tend to do. Perhaps arrange a phone call between the two, in which Tim can apologise?
7. If Adewale accepts, the conflict is resolved. If not, Gilles has 3 options:
i) Issue Adewale with a disciplinary warning for being unprofessional. This is probably unwise in an already heated situation.
ii) Do nothing and let Adewale resign (or not). This is dependent on how vital Adewale is to the project and how easily he can be replaced.
iii) Agree to fire Tim.
Let’s say he does No. iii).
8. If Gilles just fires Tim from the project, he risks at best a highly disgruntled employee and at worst a costly lawsuit. So it’s better to negotiate.
9. He should first ascertain how happy Tim is in his position in the first place. Maybe he doesn’t like Australia and would rather be somewhere else anyway? He should speak with the career managers and find out if there’s a half-decent position on another project, and then have a chat with Tim. He should start by saying there’s not a whole lot wrong with the article, but it’s inadvertently caused him a big headache and he’d really, really appreciate it if Tim would consider just stepping off the project to perhaps go and take up this other position. Gilles would consider it a favour, and he’d owe him a beer or two when they next meet up in HQ.
10. If Tim agrees to this – and he would – the conflict is resolved. However, Gilles’ authority in Nigeria has been severely undermined. This is was probably the plan all along: the Nigerians sensed weakness in the French manager and wanted to test it. This is once again cultural: it is unlikely a Nigerian would have threatened a fellow Nigerian in the same manner, and I expect a Chinese manager who brings such a conflict to a Chinese project director would have mere seconds to survive in the firm. The same goes for Koreans, Japanese, and probably Russians.
My Professor’s Comments
Bear in mind here my professor is a man with considerable experience running companies of all sorts, not some academic who’s never left the Sorbonne. His approach is:
1. Gilles thanks Adewale for bringing the article to his attention, and says he will deal with it.
2. He passes the article to legal/HR/ethics/whoever and gets back to running his project.
3. The end.
I wouldn’t have got a whole lot of marks if I’d answered my assignment like that, but he made some very good points. Firstly, he said a project director is there to direct a project, not waste time reading blog posts. Secondly, he is neither experienced nor qualified to ascertain whether a blog post breaches the law, company rules, or generates reputational damage for the company. His opinions on the post are therefore utterly irrelevant. Thirdly, the whole thing is likely an exercise on the part of the Nigerian to determine “who is the dog and who is the human”. As soon as Gilles starts even discussing the matter with Adewale, that question gets answered. He shouldn’t even open the subject, as by now it is off his desk and into another department where it belongs. Finally, he presumed that if Gilles had the competence to manage the situation in the way I suggested he’d probably not be assigned to a project in Nigeria in the first place. To paraphrase Donald Trump, they’re not sending their best. At that I could only grin broadly.
My professor also made the quite accurate comment that if a company really wants rid of you, they’ll do so one way or another.
What Actually Happened
1. Gilles caved immediately upon hearing Adewale’s demand and ran me off the project, hence I was forced to leave Australia and go to France.
When I reminded him of the corporate policies I cited above, he replied by saying: “But this is a project. You’re not being fired from the company, just removed from the project.” I went back and had a look, but failed to find a footnote saying corporate policies don’t apply to those assigned to projects.
When I suggested he might have approached this as per No. 9 in my proposal, he said with considerable annoyance: “I don’t have to do that, I’m the project director.”
I was actually quite happy to go to France, it’s just the position they assigned me was rubbish. Although I could have sought legal redress in Australia, frankly it wasn’t worth it.